Tuesday, August 5, 2008
While it's too early to actually start believing that D'Angelo's new album is dropping this fall (readthisexcellentSpinpieceRIGHTNOW), it is definitely not too early to deem certain artists' efforts as the Best of 2008...so far. And unless you don't have a heart or working hammers, anvils and stirrups, then you know that the Rev. Al Green's Lay It Down is quite possibly the greatest "classic" soul album to emerge since well, the initial Soulquarian movement that spawned Voodoo. And that isn't surprising, considering ?uestlove was at the producer helm for both.
At least three years in the making, Green's "real" comeback hadn't really been executed to perfection until this Ahmir Thompson and James Poyser dream project came to fruition at Electric Lady: Dap-King horns, Anthony Hamilton, Corinne Bailey Rae, John Legend (even his black Liberace schtick can't taint his contribution on the lovely and twinkling duet "Stay With Me (By the Sea)"), Jaguar Wright and of course, the late and great Chalmers "Spanky" Alford flesh out what already was a promising and titillating concept: take the Rick Rubin/Jack White M.O. (retooling an icon's sound ever so slightly with the benefit of younger producers/younger working musicians aesthetics, while expanding on what made said icon so great in the first place, also known as not fucking with an already good thing and trying to make a legend play catch up with the Top 40 club) and apply it to the last working living soul legend. It had been ?uest's dream to do so (and he has previously turned down Stevie Wonder, citing too much pressure and personal anxiety over that hypothetical project) and he knew he could do it. It was just a matter of making Blue Note realize that they had dropped the ball, and kindly asking Willie Mitchell to stand back and let the youngsters take the reins.
The resulting sessions unfolded the same way the famed Voodoo recording sessions did: no pressure, a slow layering process, and a heavy editing hand. If a song worked, they came back to it a few months later just to make sure it still smacked of epicness. Jam sessions, writing while rehearsing, and of course, simplicity paved the way for the album I personally have been waiting for since I was a little kid. I grew up on Al and the other soul and R&B greats, but I grew up on what my mother and her generation experienced first hand. I could and did listen to Let's Stay Together a million times, but even as a child couldn't help but think, if he's still alive, why isn't he making music like this anymore? And despite his gospel era, the truth was, he wasn't making music like he did at Hi Records thirty years ago. He could, but he wasn't. And part of that is the unfortunate fate many of our Hall of Famers face: act like you're still 20 years-old to appeal to the 20 year-old set, or else you are a relic, or at best, starring in an awkward Victoria's Secret commercial.
Lay It Down combines the lush strings of Green's Memphis days with the sharp and full horns of his '70s reign (courtesy of the Dap-Kings), and lucky for us and Green, his voice has not changed one octave since he first started. Every single moan, squeal and emotive vocal arpeggio is there, matched by the basic organ styling of Poyser, crisp and simple drums of Thompson and the lilting and gorgeous guitar riffs of Alford. This record is Green's first Top 10 album since 1973. It is the most organic and natural sounding execution he has attempted since his beautiful and raw "farewell" to the secular world, 1977's The Belle Album. It is without any doubt, any hype, any bullshit, an immediate classic.